Replacement officials appointed after PRO, PSRA fail to reach CBA before MLS First Kick

Replacement referees will work the first weekend of the MLS regular season after PRO locked out PSRA members in the wake of a negotiating impasse in Collective Bargaining Agreement discussions. 

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MLS will start the season with replacement referees after the Professional Referee Organization and the Professional Soccer Referees Association failed to reach terms on their first collective bargaining agreement in time for the new season.

Both sides have negotiated the particulars of the deal over the past several months in a bid to strike an agreement. Those discussions, however, revealed substantive differences between PRO and PSRA about the potential compensation and framework included in any potential agreement.

The inability to find common ground or reach an agreement to take a potential lockout or strike off the table prompted PRO to lockout PSRA officials on Friday morning to ensure the first week of MLS matches would go off as scheduled. No further negotiations were scheduled as of Friday morning in the wake of the decision.

“We’ve been working since July on these negotiations,” PSRA vice president Steven Taylor told Inside MLS in a phone interview on Friday morning. “It’s incredibly disappointing to me personally that it has come to this. Our members were very much ready to work games this weekend and had every intention of doing so. We feel [PRO general manager] Peter Walton could have easily solved this problem and negotiations could have easily continued. We didn’t need to have a finalized CBA in place to work games this weekend. There were some key pieces that needed to get finalized or at least tentatively agreed to. So we’re disappointed.”

In lieu of a tentative deal to overcome the impasse driven primarily by financial concerns, PRO proposed a no-strike/no-lockout agreement to continue negotiations over the weekend and work toward a potential solution. Taylor told Walton on Friday morning that the PSRA had no intention of agreeing to take those options off the table. The decision prompted the PRO board to act decisively in order to guarantee First Kick would proceed as scheduled.

“We couldn’t get a response from them until early this morning,” Walton told Inside MLS in a phone interview during a phone interview on Friday morning. “The response was that they wouldn’t agree to such an agreement, which is unfortunate because it placed this weekend’s fixtures under threat because we didn’t know whether PSRA were going to activate the strike. With that possibility, we had to make the decision we made this morning.”

Taylor said his members preferred to continue negotiations on Monday and Tuesday in Washington, D.C. instead of agreeing to the no-strike/no-lockout provision. He also noted the PSRA saw no reason to voluntarily waive its strike option to continue negotiations..

“We did not have any interest in taking the strike and lockout options off the table,” Taylor said. “We didn’t see any real advantage to us to do that.”

The decision to lock out the PSRA referees forced PRO to enact a contingency plan devised in case the CBA did not come to pass in time for opening weekend. MLS commissioner Don Garber guaranteed First Kick would proceed as scheduled during a conference call earlier this week. His certainty stemmed from PRO’s efforts to assemble a group of replacement referees in Dallas last week offer a potential alternative in case negotiations stalled.

Walton said PRO scoured the landscape in the United States and Canada to compile a list of potential alternatives. Prospective replacement candidates participated in a camp to receive training on matchday administrative procedures and processes. All potential options passed a fitness test during their stay there, according to Walton.

“Those replacements have significant experience,” Walton said. “Some are ex-FIFA and international referees, ex-MLS referees. They are potential persons who we are looking at to promote as MLS referees in the future. We know we have a strong pool of officials we can pick from.”

Although the group of replacement officials includes current and former FIFA officials like Irish referee Alan Kelly (assigned to the season-opening match between Seattle and Sporting Kansas City tomorrow) and ex-MLS referees like Abbey Okulaja and Ramon Hernandez, there is some uncertainty as to how the group will perform.

Taylor noted his organization has received substantial support from the MLS Players Union process during the CBA process and wondered whether using the replacement officials provided the proper protections for those players in the opening matches of the campaign.

“Our biggest concern in all of this apart from protecting our members is protecting the health and the safety of the players,” Taylor said. “We’re in regular contact with the MLS Players Union. They have been wonderfully supportive of our efforts. It has been very helpful to talk to them since they have gone through this process before and this is our first time going through the Collective Bargaining Agreement process. We’re extremely respectful of them and what they do for a living. We’re appreciative of their support. We’re more than just a little bit concerned about their safety and their health and well-being for this weekend’s games.”

Those issues – and several more – will likely unfold in the days and the weeks ahead, though logistical adjustments posed the biggest concern in the wake of the decision. PSRA officials scheduled to work this weekend started to return home after spending the past three days in Orlando preparing for the new season. PRO replacements traveled to their assigned matches to fulfill their duties this weekend.

It is by no means the solution either party wanted in the buildup to the 2014 season. It is, however, the state of play heading into First Kick.

“It is what it is,” Walton said. “Whilst I’m disappointed, I’m also quite hopeful that Monday morning, the newspapers we’re reading are talking about how well the games were played and what great goals were scored rather than anything to do with the officiating.”